Death threats, denial for woman who showed college athletes struggle to read

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Mary Willingham

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The death threats, Mary Willingham expected.

More shocking is that the University of North Carolina is now disavowing her research as a whistle-blower — research that showed between 8 percent and 10 percent of the school’s football and basketball players are reading below a third-grade level.

UNC issued a statement Wednesday night saying it did not believe Willingham’s account of a basketball player who could not read or write.

It went on: “University officials can’t comment on the other statistical claims mentioned in the story because they have not seen that data. University officials have asked for that data, but those requests have not been met.”

As well as questioning UNC many times about the story before publication, CNN has also detailed Willingham’s research.

And purported email exchanges obtained by CNN since August show that Willingham did share her findings at least twice — once with Executive Vice Provost James W. Dean Jr., and once with a member of a university committee on academics and athletics.

In addition, Willingham says her research on the students in the athletics programs that make money for the university was done based on screenings that the university itself paid for. And, she says, she has gotten permission from the university several times since 2008 to access those findings to continue her research.

“It’s already available to them,” Willingham said. “It’s in their system. … They have all the data and more. It belongs to them, and they paid a lot of money for it.”

Last year, when CNN asked UNC for comment on Willingham’s research, officials initially denied knowing about it, and said: “Such analysis is not part of her job duties at the university.”

Then, after being shown the emails, a spokesperson admitted that Willingham did share her findings and did have permission from the university to do the research in the first place, and said a meeting with Willingham was being scheduled.

Apart from Wednesday’s statement, UNC has not responded to CNN’s request for an explanation.

In the meantime, Willingham said she has heard from one branch of the university — the Department of Public Safety.

Since CNN’s report, Willingham said she’s gotten four death threats, and more than 30 other alarming messages.

“Not people who disagree, people who put in the subject or body (of the email) straight-up hate speech,” she said.

But there have also been notes of support from several other academic advisers around the country, Willingham says, and they make it worth the trouble.

“I’ve been getting more and more nice notes from high school teachers and literacy specialists across the country saying ‘Thank you.'”

A formal incident report hasn’t been made yet, but university police said: “We are looking into it and making effort to reach out and investigate the nature of the threats.”

“It’s really OK,” Willingham said of the threats, “because I’m telling the truth.”



  • PeteandCarrie Hutchens

    Cheating and lying have been exposed and the answer is threats.
    Where is the NCAA or ACC Commish Swofford ?
    What did Gov. Martin hide ?
    A lot evidently and the taxpayers are on the hook for this mess and the coverup.

    Sadly this .. are at least the latest per article :

    ” As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.

    “So what are the classes they are going to take to get a degree here? You cannot come here with a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade education and get a degree here,” she told CNN. “

  • Mark Stabler

    Anyone that thinks this is not the normal course of operation across the NCAA is fooling themselves. Students that can barely complete high school are recruited and provided tutors. Many, not all, arrive with extremly poor high school records, Many from broken homes and attending college only because they have an athletic scholarship. Not long after getting on campus they somehow start driving a nice vehicle and start wearing high dollar suits and clothes. UNC is no better or worse than the norm and anyone that thinks different is fooling themselves.

    • PeteandCarrie Hutchens

      You can’t claim that as an argument .
      UNC ch has lorded over everybody these years the ” Carolina Way ”
      Attacked Clemson, FSU, State and Va Tech .
      When the Shoe is now on that little Blue Princess Foot ” the everybody does it “crowd comes forth.
      No everybody can’t do it and as Duke has shown you do not have too.

      And as Momma said : If everybody is jumping off a cliff are you going to jump with them !

  • PeteandCarrie Hutchens

    “CNN report examines poor reading skills of former UNC athletes”

    “The report focused on 183 athletes admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012. ”

    Those athletes admitted in 2012 are presumably still on campus. Nothing “former” about them.

    Glad to see that unc-ch is serious about correcting their issues after the 2010-2011 football scandal
    Luv2Camp Jan 8, 7:37 p.m.

    Ok. I am repeating what I already heard, but this one is good.

    70% of the athletes at UNC are going to be hopping mad when someone reads this story to them

  • Lee Goins

    UNC is not the only university with this problem….when the reporter interviewed the QB from Florida Monday night after the football game, he sounded just like a common hood-rat…he showed no education at all.

  • Conan

    OK, so once again the truth is what the truth is. What now? Guess we just keep doing same thing, like our government. Just keep doing the same thing. So it would seem as a society we are stupid also. Just saying, was that Marvin or Mary?

  • Dopple

    Much ado…This is just the first step in damage control. This will calm down shortly and continue status-quo.

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